In the past week new accounts of the heartbreak of family and friends of Victorian bushfire victims have come to light. These are distressing accounts of people waiting to bury their dead.
They are waiting for the State Coroner to release bodies they know are their loved ones and the waiting itself leaves them in a limbo of shock and horror at the ugliness of death. They are unable to lay their dead to rest or properly grieve.
The Coroner explains the coronial process in a specially written information brochure for “family and friends” available on the coronial website. The dedicated teams of forensic experts — scientists, pathologists, anthropologists, endologists (dentists) and technical staff are working around the clock to identify bodies using the clearly defined protocol developed by Interpol called Disaster Victim Identification (DVI). This system of is based on the identification of bodies through visual recognition using such markers as build, hair and eye colour, scars and tattoos; physical evidence such as dental examination and fingerprints; circumstantial evidence such as clothing jewellery and pocket contents (a weaker form of evidence); and DNA identity testing.
However, given the intensity of the bushfires, most of these techniques are ineffective at best. Even the use of DNA identification — the most powerful technological tool in the toolkit — may not be adequate in many cases. The coroner’s office warns that, despite their best effort and long delays of “many months”, “in some cases, identification will not be possible due to the extent of the fires”. Despite this, the forensic teams are undertaking the painstaking work of identifying all remains as it is clearly set out for them — matching bodies and body parts to DNA samples from the person’s effects or records or to DNA samples from parents or children.
All identification processes are focussed on bodies and their physical, structural and genetic composition. What is missing from evidence taken into account though is place — where the victim’s bodies were found. They were where they were expected to be and where family and friends knew them to be and where, in most cases, they chose to be. They were in their own homes defending their properties or simply trapped there, but nonetheless known to be there.
No foul play; no swapping identities to disappear; no mysteries. It was simple, plain and sudden misfortune that happened to people in their own private and personal place. They were victims of a terrible and unexpected disaster. Family and friends know this. For them there is absolutely no doubt about who was in the home and who died there.
Many, if not all victims had been in contact with family or friends when the disaster was approaching. In one distressing case a mother reported on ABC radio that she was talking on the phone to her son who was in the kitchen when a fireball hit and she heard the windows implode before the final silence.
Two others reported to the media that parents, in one case, and friends, in the other, were at home defending their property. In each case the bodies were found in the house and their respective cars on the property. There is no evidence at all to suggest that the identities of the bodies need to be questioned. The accounts given by family and friends are the most likely scenario in the majority of cases where homes or personal places were destroyed.
Of the 210 bodies discovered there were of course many out of place. They were visitors to someone else’s place or were found in a public or semi-public place. This is precisely where the forensic teams need to focus their identification efforts because the science here is essential to reveal what is not known. This is the scenario that the DVI protocols were set up for — to identify bodies that were out of place, bodies that were not closely connected to home or in communication with family and friends and who did not choose to be there when disaster struck.
The bodies of victims of the Victorian bushfire disaster are not just objective biological bodies only knowable and identifiable through scientific evaluation of them. Nor are they uncommunicative bodies out of place. They are bodies who were connected in time and space with families and friends at, or shortly before, their sudden deaths. With these bodies mass DNA identity testing is unnecessary. The coroner and her forensic teams are following DVI protocol — that is their job — but the protocols they are following apply to circumstances where bodies are unknown or out of place.
DNA identity testing is a powerful technology that can be used in the service of humankind to tell us what we don’t know. To insist on its use to verify what is already known to many families and friends is to allow the technology to drive human action (the response to tragedy) to determine how we know about things and what we do about them. It is, and will be, of little comfort to the grieving friends and relatives to have the scientific confirmation of what they already know (or indeed what has been found to be scientifically unknowable) some months down the track.
The coroner’s office states that “[a] structured, systematic approach must be undertaken to avoid misidentification and the trauma this would inflict on families”. In practice though, because place (that is, people being where they were known to be) and the confirmation of place through electronic and other communications (that is, people informing family and friends where they were) are not being taken into account, more trauma than is necessary is already being inflicted on grieving families. It would seem that there are a lot of families suffering unnecessarily in the service of the (remote) possibility of making one mistake.
What this disaster requires is a human response as well as a scientific one. In the circumstances, there would seem to be little reason for the grieving families to provide misinformation. Where families can give solid circumstantial evidence of location (place) and communication with the victim/s, and the body count matches that information, then this is surely enough evidence for the Coroner to accept in the “reconciliation” process in order to release the remains of the victims of this tragedy to their families.
Dr Lynette Turney is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology.